Why a good platform can't be free

I sure am having fun thinking about OpenConsole, i.e., a Linux based set top box that plays in the same space as Microsoft and Sony and Nintendo, but is really an evolution of the Home Theater PC (HTPC) into gaming, but all using open licensing so you don’t have to pay the big boys to write applications for this platform. The underlying technologies are pretty cool as I play with adding OpenGL graphics to the qemu emulator. But the business side of it is interesting as well.

In particular, my thoughts turned to multimedia support on open platforms. This is where the insistence on Linux being free is really biting the hand that feeds you. Not all good software can be free. We do live in a world of patents and a lot of the key technology that goes into a multimedia system is protected by patents and require a license to legally distribution implementations of that technology.

You know, I have no problem with that. As I’ve stated in the past, complex algorithms are hard to get right and multimedia is complex to get good quality results. And I don’t blame the creators of this work wanting to get something out of it. If they didn’t, they probably wouldn’t have created it to begin with and we’d be waiting for some kind soul to donate this for free. Wishful thinking I’d think.

But you know, the costs aren’t that bad. One I was looking at was the DVD format licensing. There is a company in Japan that controls this and their pricing information is here. It’s about $5K for the book (under NDA), $15K for the license, then another $10K or so for verification. That’s not too bad if you’re selling thousands of units. But it’s also not zero. And the NDA also prevents the implementation from being open source to begin with anyway.

And there are similar fees for the very popular MP3, (minimum $15K). Blu-ray is similar. And some of these are yearly fees. So as you can see, if you want to produce a multimedia platform you can redistribute, the costs are non-zero. So why do people expect these platforms to cost zero…